One man’s holy war is another’s campaign of terror – it all depends which side you’re on, and whose propaganda you believe. For when it comes to shaping perceptions, the war of words is a more subtle weapon than sword or canon. Thus, assassin and crusader prompt totally opposite mental images, although they are linguistic products of the same religious conflict.
Propaganda itself was originally an exclusively religious term, although it now more commonly describes the process of inducing political non-believers to learn the error of their ways. Literally, it means propagating the faith, taking its name from the Latin Congregatio de Propaganda – the Congregation (or College) of Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church, which was founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV with responsibility for developing overseas missions.
Several centuries earlier, the Crusaders (literally followers of the cross) initiated their own form of missionary work by slaughtering the non-Christians who occupied Jerusalem at the time. They went into battle yelling “Hip, hip, hurrah,” which seems a far cry from the modern sense of “three cheers” for the winter/bride/boss/buyer of the round, etc.
HIP derived from the Latin “Hierusalym est Perdita” – for Jerusalem is perished (at the hands of the infidel). Hurrah comes from the Slavonic “Hurraj” – meaning “to paradise”.
The Crusaders were thus mediaeval forerunners of kamikaze pilots, entering battle with the attitude: “Jerusalem is destroyed, but we’re going there to fight for it – and if we end up in heaven as a result, amen.”
On the way, they were very likely to encounter assassins, mortal enemies dedicated to making the Crusaders’ heavenly ascension as swift as possible.
Nowadays, we use assassin to describe professional hitmen or those who murder someone of importance, but originally they were just hashshashin – Arabic for eaters of hashish. The term described a sect of Muslim fanatics which at the time of the Crusades dedicated itself to killing Christians.
Their sheikh was called “The Old Man of the Mountains” and before he sent his men forth to murder Crusaders he permitted them to acquire some Dutch (or Arab) courage by means of the hashish.